Harrison Burman tried to concentrate on the distant figure in a spacesuit ahead of him, and not on his churning stomach. Keep your eyes forward, he thought, concentrate on where you're going, don't look down -
Inadvertantly, he looked down.
Vertigo! Far beneath him, the gloomy, whorled cloud patterns of Jasmine stared up balefully at him. He was suspended hundreds of kilometers above it, his stomach and semicircular canals screaming that he was falling, falling -
"Are you all right?" a voice snapped in his ears. Asherwal.
"Yes, yes," Burman muttered. He lifted his eyes forward again, and tried to calm down. He was no stranger to spacewalks, although not one as long as this.
Far behind him, he knew, was the nearly lifeless bulk of Rhylanor. Ahead of him, just barely visible but growing larger by the second, was the scout cruiser, their destination. They glided towards it, piloted by Sergeant Loki, each of their suits' thrusters slaved to his controls.
"Turnover in ten seconds," the Aslan growled, and Burman felt himself begin to tumble backwards. A wave of nausea came over him briefly, and then his suit stopped turning. He sagged backwards as the thruster unit came on, decelerating them. He tried to locate Rhylanor against the background of stars, but there were too many and it was too dim.
They decelerated for a long time. His mind wandered...back to before the war, to his days as a system administrator in the Margesi Orbital Port, brewing the infamous Scout Ale (fancifully described as 312 proof), holding philosophical conversations with the computer's simulated AI...
They stopped decelerating. A blinking red light appeared in his helmet's display. He had been disconnected from Loki's control. Sighing, Burman rotated around to face the scout cruiser.
It loomed ahead in the distance, still far away, but already bigger than he had thought it would be. He increased the magnification on his display and began to hunt for the transponder antenna. When he found it, he used his tongue to activate his laser communicator.
"Harrison, is that you?" a female voice immediately said.
"Your one and only. What's the status?"
"I've had the Zhos locked out of their communication cycle for about ten minutes now. I'm talking to the rest of the fleet for them, and responding to their messages as if I was the fleet. They can figure out what I'm doing, though, given time."
"We better not give them that time. How's life support?"
"Program set up and running. I've been reducing oxygen pressure for three minutes. Internal sensors are picking up a lot less movement."
"Good. Cut off all the oxygen now, keep pressure up with carbon dioxide only. Do that for five minutes, then put oxygen pressure back to half normal."
"I'm going to sign off. Talk to you when I get to the ship."
"Can't wait to see you, boss!"
Loki lined himself up with Burman and flashed him with a spotlight. Burman used his light to flash back, then accelerated towards the cruiser.
He swept up towards the underside of the ship, then used his thruster to swing over to the port side. He glided along the side of the vessel, decelerated hard, and then landed gently next to the emergency airlock outside the engineering section. He extended a cable from his suit's left arm and plugged it into a connector next to the airlock door.
"I'm here, Gorgeous. What's the story?"
"Near as I can tell, anybody not in a pressure suit's incapacitated. My mics are picking up labored breathing near last known location for each crewmember."
Good. They hadn't killed anybody yet. "So we got everybody?"
"Not quite, Boss. There's movement on the ship. Three people, at least."
"I think they must be Zho troopers, still in armor. Kind of wandering around. I think we got their commander already."
"Great. Where are they going?"
"Two of them have gathered near portside main lock. The others are approaching it. I guess four now, not three."
A figure landed next to him on the ship's hull. Burman started, knocking himself off of the hull and pulling his lead out of the connector, but it was only Loki. Sheepishly, he drifted back to the hull and plugged in again.
"Boss! What happened?"
"Sorry. My friends just got here. What do you think the Zhos are going to do?"
"Best guess is that they'll try to get to the main antenna and manually override it."
Burman concentrated feverishly on his memories of a cruiser's layout. "That's why they're at the portside lock. Fastest route to the main antenna."
Loki said, "Can you patch into their communications?"
"No. I mean, yes, but they're scrambled, and I don't know the code."
"Grrr...we must do this the more difficult way." He began sending instructions to the Marines, who began to float into positions where they could cover the door, but not be seen by a person inside the lock.
"What do we do when..." Burman began, but Loki grabbed his arm, and he snapped his mouth shut. Far down the cruiser's hull, the portside airlock began to open.
A Zhodani trooper drifted outside, slowly. He didn't have time to register any surprise: four Marines fired their lasers in near unison, and the trooper began to tumble away, obviously dead.
Right behind him came another. The other Marines fired, and he began to tumble, too. The head of a third Zhodani poked itself through the lock and then shot back inside. The airlock iris contracted shut.
"GORGIAS, open the portside lock. Seal off the corridor behind it," Loki said. The Marines began to accelerate towards the airlock, slipping into it one after the other in a remarkable display of precision flying. "Burman, you must access the computer core now."
"Right." Burman punched the activation sequence into the panel next to the emergency airlock. Behind him, Asherwal drifted up, ready to follow him inside.
Beyond the airlock door was a narrow crawlway. Burman shifted his laser carbine in front of him, and inched forward into the passageway. He felt Asherwal's helmet bump against his feet as the technician squeezed in behind him, and the vibrations in the floor as the airlock shut. He began to move forward on his elbows and knees.
After about a meter, he entered the ship's artificial gravity field and gratefully sighed with relief as weight returned to him. The corridor was dimly lit with red light and extremely claustrophobic. He maneuvered past one junction with another accessway, and then found a hatch just beyond it. He opened it, swung his legs into the ladder well behind the hatch, and began to clamber down.
His radio crackled to life. "Burman, we have the other troopers. Proceed with your operations," Loki said.
"I'm not even at the core yet, you shaggy menace!" Burman wisely did not say. Remembering to keep radio silence, he did not even acknowledge the signal. At the bottom of the well, he found an access panel and undogged its connectors.
He had to stoop down and duck his head to get through it and into the main computer room. As he stood up, something pinged against his helmet. He turned around and immediately froze.
A young man with ash blond hair was standing next to the main memory banks, a long, waist high rectangular piece of equipment. He was clutching an emergency gas mask to his face with one hand, and holding a pistol in the other. His eyes were wide with terror. Before Burman could do anything, the man took aim and fired right at his face.
Burman flinched as the bullet hit him and ricocheted off his faceplate. The man fired again, and again there was no effect but to cause a loud "ping" to echo through his helmet. Burman began to laugh and walk towards the memory bank. The Zhodani technician couldn't hurt him in his armor.
He froze again. A bomb had been wired to the top of the memory bank. It was very crude-he could see the gray, lumpy shapes of the TDX plastic explosive and their detonators quite clearly.
The man followed his gaze. Understanding suddenly dawned on him. He dropped the gun and began to reach for the detonator switch.
Burman shot him, holding the carbine at waist level and tightly clutching the trigger. Some far removed part of his brain marveled at the programming that kept a virtual crosshair locked on his target as he fired. The man crumpled to the ground. Bits of his clothes were charred.
"Gorgeous, are you all right?" Burman said into his radio.
"Yes, Boss, what's the problem?"
"The technician in here was still up. He was going to blow up your memory bank."
"I took care of him."
Asherwal had entered the room and was looking at the corpse with apparent interest. "I hope you like me as much as your programs," he said.
"Oh, shut up." Burman turned to the memory bank and began to type in some key codes. He hoped there wasn't any truth in what the technician had said.
He was pretty sure there wasn't. Pretty sure.